Friday, September 12, 2014

The New Novel from Sarah Waters, "The Paying Guests," is out on Tuesday, September 16--Read Our Exclusive Interview.

Next week the new novel from Sarah Waters comes out. This is her sixth novel, following Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith, The Night Watch, and The Little Stranger. Waters was one of the Best Young British Novelists for Granta, and all her books have received strong review attention; three of her novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The Paying Guests has been hotly anticipated by Boswellians. Here's a recommendation from Jen Steele: "In the aftermath of World War I, Frances Wray and her mother must rent out rooms in their house, due to their accumulated losses and mounting debts. Newlyweds Leonard and Lillian Barber are the Wray’s first tenants in their home up on Champion Hill. It's a big adjustment for the Wrays, who come to terms with having "paying guests". Along the way, Frances & Lillian get to know each other, and what begins as a friendship blossoms into something more. Then one day a catastrophe strikes that upends their existence and that of everyone they know. Sexy, gripping, and suspenseful, Sarah Waters is in top form."

Boswellian Carly Lenz called The Paying Guests "A meticulously and beautifully constructed novel full of plot twists, character depth, and striking language." And Sharon Nagel praised the "supenseful and unpredictable story." With such enthusiasm, the three of them got together and asked me* to help facilitate an interview with the author. So we worked with our friends at Riverhead and to our delight, Ms. Waters (photo credit Charlie Hopkinson) was happy to ponder Sharon, Carly, and Jen's questions.

The Boswellians: Can you tell us something about The Paying Guests that's not in the book description?

Waters: It was a tough book to write! - both technically and emotionally. I took a lot of wrong turnings, and did tons of rewriting: I have a pile of discarded drafts that is literally three feet high. But once I'd found the tone I was looking for, it was a very rewarding writing experience, and I've ended up feeling fonder of this book than of any of my others.

Boswellians: What gets you in the mood when your writing books set in another time? Do you listen to any music from the topical time period/era while writing?

Waters: I can't listen to music when I write: I have to have boring peace and quiet. But I did watch lots of '20s films when I was writing The Paying Guests, and I looked at as many images as I could - of street scenes, say, and fashions, food, domestic artefacts. The internet is a wonderful thing for a historical novelist - though it can also be a huge distraction...

Boswellians: Your novels have a certain sexiness to them and your latest novel, The Paying Guests is being considered your steamiest novel yet. Was this something you wanted to explore in-depth? Is it awkward or fun to write love scenes?

Waters: It's fun, but a challenge, because sex is so complex: it isn't just the body that's involved, but the head, the heart, the emotions, and a good sex scene should do justice to all that. Sometimes, too, sex doesn't quite work, or fails completely - and again, an honest depiction should capture that untidiness. But one of the toughest things about writing lesbian sex scenes is that it's all 'she' and 'her': 'She put her head between her legs while she twirled her fingers in her hair', etc. Your characters can end up sounding as though their arms are ten feet long.

Boswellians: In the world of lesbian fiction, your writing of lesbian relationships has a rare, more literary feel than the average lesbian pulp, do you feel that portraying lesbian relationships as similar to straight ones makes that divorce from lesbian pulp easier? Also, The Paying Guests has a Patricia Highsmith feel. If you were writing The Paying Guests in the 1950s, do you think you'd have felt more pressure to conform to "pulp" standards or do you think you would have been able to write lesbian relationships in such a literary way?

Waters: I'm not sure that I portray lesbian relationships as similar to straight ones, exactly - or perhaps you mean I treat them with the sort of respect, honesty and attention that we're more used, in books and films, to seeing devoted to heterosexual lives? Yes, that's definitely something I aim for. As for the Highsmithy feel of The Paying Guests - thank you! Patricia Highsmith is one of my favourite authors. I'd like to think that if I'd been writing in the 1950s I would have had the courage to write in an ambitious, non-pulpy way about lesbians - she did, after all, with Carol. But I know that I've only been able to write in a relaxed manner about lesbians because so many other authors did it first, before me.

Boswellians: In your books, some of your lesbian characters live openly and some are closeted to all but their closest confidantes. What we liked about Frances is that she's true to her nature. Given the conservative attitudes in postwar England, do you think any gay people were able to live openly or were they all shunned? Is it possible that Christina and Stevie were living openly? (Help us settle a bet- Sharon says no and Jen says yes)

Waters: It was a really interesting time for gay people, because attitudes were changing, and sexual knowledge was spreading. Yes, society was conservative, and fictional portrayals of lesbianism from the time (e.g. in Clemence Dane's Regiment of Women or Naomi Royde Smith's The Tortoiseshell Cat) are pretty damning. But in real life, with the right resources behind you, it was clearly relatively easy to meet and form communities, to find lovers and sympathetic friends: look at biographies of women like Katherine Mansfield, Vita Sackville West and Daphne du Maurier and her sisters and you'll see that they had lesbian relationships in very unproblematic ways. Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge were part of a confident lesbian network. And Sylvia Townsend Warner and her lover Valentine Ackland lived together very openly in their small Dorset community. So I think that Christina and Stevie are living pretty openly, too, but benefiting from the fact that only some observers would understand them to be lesbian, while others might consider them to be simply arty, or eccentric, or two young spinsters sharing a flat. It depends what your idea of 'openness' is... So, Sharon and Jen, I think you are both right.

Boswellians: What was your influence for The Paying Guests? Was there any particular novel or writer that directly influenced you?

Waters: There wasn't a particular writer, no. One thing that struck me about the period was what a mish-mash of voices it was. The 1940s, for example, has always seemed to me to have a very distinctive idiom; but the '20s was much more diverse. So I just read all sorts of literature from the period - novels, plays, poetry, letters, diaries; highbrow, middlebrow and potboilers - and let it all seep in.

Boswellians: If you could, which time period would you prefer to live in: Tipping the Velvet or The Paying Guests?

Waters: The Paying Guests, no contest - simply because, as an unmarried woman in the 1920s, there'd be more ways for me to live independently. I think I'd have more chance of meeting other lesbians, too. And the clothes would weigh less!

Boswellians: In reading The Paying Guests, we felt like we were sucked right into the pages and were right there next to Frances, especially with the courtroom scenes. How much research did you have to conduct regarding the British Justice System for part three?

Waters: Tons! I really had to know what I was talking about, even if I never got to use all the details. I had in fact visited the Old Bailey in the past, so that was a good starting-point. But I had to get a handle on the whole legal process, as well as police procedure and stuff like that. Newspapers were a great help, along with transcripts of celebrated trials. I did so much research into it all, in such a short space of time, that I'm sure at one point I could have done a good job of defending you in court, if I'd had to.

Boswellians: Your couples seem so different from each other but they manage to fall in love. Do you enjoy writing "opposites attract" romances? They do seem to be enjoyable to read.

Waters: Well, I think it's partly something to do with writing lesbian love stories. Just because the lovers are of the same sex, it doesn't mean that there aren't going to be other differences between them - differences, say, of class, that might have a huge impact on how they feel about themselves, their bodies, their desires, their expectations and ambitions. The Paying Guests is the first time I've portrayed an affair between a lesbian and a married woman, so that was interesting. Frances is posher than Lilian, so has that class advantage. But oddly, her background weighs on her, too, in a way that Lilian's does not; and Lilian, as a wife, has a status that Frances lacks as a spinster. I like thinking about how those sorts of dynamics play out in a relationship. They're what give a love affair texture, and bite - don't you think?

Thank you to Sarah Waters and to Jynne and Liz at Riverhead for coordinating this. The Paying Guests is on sale Tuesday, September 16, at Boswell and, to use an old-fashioned tagline, wherever fine books are sold. Why not pre-order a copy from us? And to get another take on the novel, read Michael Dirda's review in The Washington Post.

*I'm just the secretary for this post, which is why it is in The Boswellians.

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